Considering the built environment

December 5, 2006

I’ve held this post off because I didn’t want every single post I make to be about my trip to North America (via Hong Kong), but I did want to share a few thoughts.

Firstly, I’m not a greenie, and although I’m seriously thinking that my next car may well be a Prius, it’s because I want to save on fuel, not because I have any deep consideration for the environmental consequences. I actually support Australia not having signed the Kyoto agreement, because the agreement does penalise developed economies whilst allowing developing nations to do as they please.

But whilst I was away I may have discovered that there is a green side to me. Admittedly, not a very strong one, but something that is definitely there. New Jersey is the cause.

Whilst catching the NJ Transit train from Newark International to NY Penn, I had the chance to observe a reasonable swath of New Jersey, and I didn’t like what I saw.

The one particular view that I’ll never forget was on a stretch of railway on the way to NY that went through what could best be describe as wetlands, although some may prefer the term swamp. On this section of the trip you see a lot of water, and old bridges and highways, many admittedly in poor repair, you see refuse and junk pilled under bridges and highway pillions. And then there was the power lines. Power lines are nothing remarkable, but when their bases have rotted away and they are semi-emersed in water…well that’s a different picture. There was this one section where the powerlines were just as that. Semi-emersed, left literally to fall and rot, with no one caring less. It may seem absurd, but I’ll never forgot in my mind the picture of those power lines, perhaps in part because I’ve never seen anything like it before, but perhaps more so because it’s indicative of a society that doesn’t care about it’s built environment, or even it’s natural one. Sure, the wetlands around New Jersey might not be spectacular to look at, but even someone with a basic knowledge of the environment knows, not only are they rare, but they also serve as breeding grounds to fish and birds. Whilst Australia is far from perfect, I don’t believe you’d ever see such a site here. People wouldn’t stand for it. Sure, during the 60s and 70s many similar sites in Australia were abused, but we’ve moved on from those times. Wetlands are cherished, from school children planting trees, to Clean Up Australia days. In New Jersey, no one seems to care less.

The interesting comparison during my time away was Hong Kong. Of course, environmentally Hong Kong isn’t perfect, the air pollution is testament to that, but the built environment is spotless. Under highway/ freeway under passes everything was clean. On the train to the Airport I passed railway yards that in the US or Australia would be scarred by refuse and junk, in Hong Kong, even the junk was pilled neatly. Everywhere things were clean and neat, even in the places you’d least expect it.

The consideration I guess is how do people want their built environments to be? Cleanliness is one consideration. Everywhere I visited in New Jersey was pretty awful. New York was surprisingly clean, particularly for what is a concrete jungle. Toronto was dirty everywhere I went. Hong Kong was clean. I’m spoilt in many ways because I grew up in Sydney, and there really is nothing in the world like Sydney Harbour, but I’m fortunate now to live in Western Australia, where greenery is taken for granted. As I drove last week from the Burswood Dome into town to get to our hotel in East Perth, I drove across the Causeway, across Heirisson Island, with the grass and gum trees, I perhaps finally appreciated that in Australia we do things differently, and it is a good thing.

God help me as I say this, but we can make a difference to our built environments. Being proud and supportive of clean cities doesn’t make you a rabid Greenpeace supporter. Urban decay stays that way only when good people remain silent.

2 responses to Considering the built environment

  1. Duncan, Dan of DansData had a good wrap-up of the good/bad about the Prius on his blog the other day. Worth reading if you are in the market for a more environmentally-friendly vehicle: